Get That Vintage Arcade Game Sound in your EDM Tracks

May 8, 2013

From electro to tech-house and everything in between, countless electronic dance tracks have made use of vintage-style arcade game leads as their main hook. Let’s explore the concepts behind this approach to sound design.

When these games first debuted, CPUs in home and arcade machines alike were woefully slow by today’s standards. Most of their horsepower was spent on graphics, so composers were limited in their palette of sounds. With digital resources at a premium, sound designers were limited to one waveform: square. Why? The shape of a square wave is most easily represented by two states—on and off—and that in turn is most easily represented as ones and zeroes. That’s why the first video game soundtracks consisted entirely of creative uses for square waves.

Click images below to enlarge.

Step 1


For a basic video game lead, start with a single-oscillator square wave sound with the filter wide open and the volume envelope set to a gate shape: attack, decay and release times at zero and sustain level at maximum. Then, in the spirit of this experiment, play the most child-like riff you can compose. Here’s Reason’s Subtractor configured for that sound.

Step 2


Doubling in octaves is remarkably effective for squeezing the most sonic range out of your material. Back in the day, video game composers relied heavily on stacking square waves in octaves in order to achieve different sonic textures. The web audio example demonstrates three passes on the same riff, each with square waves at different octave intervals. Shown here, Ableton’s Operator synth has a waveform called “Square D” that recreates the harmonic spectrum of digital square waves extremely well.

Step 3


Arpeggiated riffs figured prominently in arcade games, both as part of the musical score and as incidental sounds. Ableton Live’s arpeggiator is an incredibly powerful tool for this type of sound design, thanks to its huge array of patterns, along with subtler parameters like step size and gate length. Getting started is easy: Set the arpeggiator style to “Pinky UpDown,” grab a fistful of notes, and start tweaking the knobs in real time. You’ll be amazed at the results.


You Might Also Like...

Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

Are any of your gigging synths analog?

See results without voting »